Right now, I am obsessed with the explosion of mixed-media in contemporary art. Photography and graphite, sculpture and collage, or woodwork and paint. But one of my first art loves was impressionism and it is always so nice to go back too. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to reunite with my old friend Edgar Degas. After coffee with a few friends in Dupont Circle, I wandered over to the Phillips Collection Art Museum to see the Degas exhibit, Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint.
The Dancers at the Barre exhibit gathers 30 of Degas’ greatest works that focus on dance and movement. The works are a mixture of oil, pastels, sculpture, drawings and prints created by Degas over the span of 40 years. “Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was a passionate devotee of ballet—he knew the dancers, the music, the choreography. He also knew the work involved in the life of the dancer, the endless repetition of steps to achieve grace, agility, and expression,” reads the Phillips Collection exhibit page.
I really enjoyed the exhibit because it focuses on Degas’ intense study of the dancer and the mastery and perfection of each work of art. Degas examined his subjects in great detail and experimented with the numerous possibilities for that one subject. He would draw and redraw one dancer over and over–exploring the contours of the body, the movement of the legs, the facials expressions–before moving on. The three images pasted above show the evolution of the exhibit’s main piece and one of Degas’ most famous works, Dancers at the Barre. Degas sketched the nude body of the dancer before creating a pastel work and then an oil piece. To Degas, even the oil piece was considered unfinished. Conservation efforts have revealed that Dancers at the Barre was worked and reworked more than eight times.
The Phillips exhibit includes a video which demonstrates the evolution of Degas’ first sketch of Dancers at the Barre to the final oil paint. It was worth the visit just to watch this 3-minute video. The video forced me to consider the patience and focus of Degas. His constant striving to master his technique is fascinating. In today’s world, we are always moving and jumping from one task to another. I wonder what we would be capable of achieving if we were able to stop and focus on one task until we had mastered it. Think of all that you have done today? Have you focused on anything for more than two hours? Edgar Degas’ 40 years may be an extreme amount of time to dedicate to one task. But I bet Degas’ would argue differently. If he were alive today, I am sure he would change some aspects of Dancers at the Barre.